Hart faces conflict of interest claims over Macon Miracle

Blogger says Bibb commission chairman’s tutoring firm conflicts with public support of school plan

Telegraph staffMarch 15, 2012 

A local political blogger is accusing the chairman of the Bibb County Commission of having a conflict of interest by supporting the Macon Miracle schools improvement plan.

Republican activist Bill Knowles said Commission Chairman Sam Hart shouldn’t endorse the school system plan because his company is paid to work with Bibb County students. Specifically, the school system uses federal money to pay Hart’s state-supervised tutoring program under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Will Chairman Hart and his companies profit from the Macon Miracle plan when it’s implemented?” Knowles wrote on his “We Are Politics” blog.

Hart, however, said Wednesday he isn’t paid a dime from the program and is the victim of political attacks.

“This is just shaking something up. As a matter of fact, if the Miracle is successful, there’ll be no need for No Child Left Behind (tutoring). You’d work yourself out of a job,” Hart said.

A Wednesday post on Knowles’ blog says Hart’s public support of the plan presents a conflict of interest, as his companies S & V Education Systems and Middle Georgia Center for Academic Excellence, work with the Bibb County Board of Education.

Knowles said Wednesday he asked the school system for records of all documents, contracts and payments to S & V Education Systems and received them this week. Those documents show the company received more than $85,000 for services between December 2009 and January 2012.

Knowles also talked about his findings with nearly 100 people who attended a forum at Lizella Baptist Church on Tuesday about the Macon Miracle plan. The plan Superintendent Romain Dallemand shared with school board members before they approved it last week includes year-round school and the portfolio school model, while taking out parts that would have closed up to 12 elementary schools and made extended school days mandatory for all students.

Knowles said Hart’s work may violate the Bibb County Code of Ethics, which says county officials should not influence a county official or employee that would benefit his financial or property interest.

“Now I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: I do not feel that there is anything illegal about Chairman Hart’s company nor the dealings that it has with the Bibb B of E,” Knowles wrote. “However, in my opinion, there is a tremendous conflict of interest in that Chairman Hart has (profited) in the failure of students in the system and is now supporting Dallemand and his plan.”

Bibb County Attorney Virgil Adams said the ethics code applies only to county government interactions and that the school system is a separate entity. Knowles also mentioned Adams in his blog post. Adams and Hart acknowledge Adams is one of the namesakes in “S & V Education Systems,” but they say Adams never had a financial or management interest in the firm, which was formed but left dormant until Hart started the tutoring business.

Under No Child Left Behind, eligible students at schools that have not met Adequate Yearly Progress targets for at least two consecutive years can receive free tutoring from state-approved providers. Hart’s S & V Education Systems is one of five companies with a Macon address that can provide tutoring services, according to state documents.

Hart said parents pick from tutoring companies, and the school system is legally prohibited from recommending S & V Education Systems or any other firm, so there can be no conflict of interest.

The Telegraph would need to file a request under the Georgia Open Records Act to get information about its dealing with the company, schools spokeswoman Stephanie Hartley said.

Knowles said his document request came after he received a tip from someone, whom he wouldn’t name, who was concerned about a potential conflict of interest.

Tom Wagoner, a Republican who plans to run against Hart for the commission chairman’s seat, said he is the person who asked Knowles to look into it.

“I don’t want to get into the middle of mudslinging, nor do I want it known that my campaign would do something like that,” Wagoner said, adding that Knowles is more talented at digging for information.

Knowles said the fact that Hart’s company ultimately is paid through federal funds is irrelevant, since the work still impacts Bibb County schools. Knowles said he didn’t know whether it would have been acceptable for Hart to support the Macon Miracle if he would have revealed his company ties but such a disclosure would have at least shown more transparency.

Wagoner agreed, saying the payments to Hart’s company come from the Bibb County school system, even though the money ultimately is from the federal government.

“Where I think it gets to be a problem is when you stand up publicly and say, ‘I support the Dallemand program. I haven’t read it, but I’m all behind it.’ I guess it’s easy to say that when you’re getting paid by the Bibb County Board of Education,” Wagoner said.

There was no political motivation behind the blog post, Knowles said.

“I just want the truth out there. If (Hart) hasn’t done anything wrong, good,” Knowles said. “There needs to be transparency with this. It’s not politics. It’s just a matter of getting the truth out.”

Wagoner said the controversy is a combination of education of children, conflicts of interest and politics.

Hart said the political attacks are factually wrong and politically motivated.

Wagoner, however, said it’s about the facts.

“This doesn’t have a thing to do with Bill Knowles or anybody else. This is Sam. Sam needs to address this issue,” he said.

Adams said there is no issue, and the Macon Miracle is the first plan from a Bibb County school superintendent he can remember.

“I think it’s a shame that in this community, we always get down in the weeds and try to make something out of nothing. What we ought to be concerned about is the education of these students,” Adams said.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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